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The History of Tamil and its use in Singapore 

To fully understand the state of the Tamil language in Singapore, we must first acquire an understanding of the language’s history in this island state. Amongst the plethora of Indian languages, Tamil is the most widely spoken in Singapore. This arose from the unique circumstances in which Indians settled in Singapore; the first Indians who came to the then-British colony were mostly Southern Indians, whose vernacular was dominantly Tamil. This ratio of Tamils in the entire Indian community still exist today; they form about 61% of the total Indian population.[1]

The Tamil population was not an affluent community. This hindered Tamil education in the early days of Singapore. Historical literature attests to the reality of the early Indians in Singapore.

Tamil education was on the other hand, almost non-existent in Singapore. In 1935, Tamil schools were registered as having 166 student (see Wilson, 1978: 64) and shortly before the outbreak of World War II, one thousand pupils were enrolled at registered Tamil schools (see Doraisamy, 1969: 38). The Government allocation of 0.5% of its total expenditure for education to Tamil schools illustrates their importance of education.

 

Altehender-Smith, Sherida, Language Change via Language Planning, 1990  

 

 

History of Tamil Education Timeline

1819 - 1929

During this period, the Indian population, like many others flocking to
Singapore, consisted of migrants. Setting up education was not a top
priority for them. The British East India Company who ruled Singapore
from 1819 to 1834 adopted a laissez-fair attitude towards education,
focusing  their concerns on British Malaya as a whole. This meant
needs of the indigenous Malay majority was considered above that
of transient migrant populations. The Malay language was given
importance as the vernacular and free elementary schooling in Malay
was provided by the government, together with aid for English-medium
schools.

 

1819-33 No Tamil schools.
1834 First Tamil class started by Singapore Free school.
  (closed in 1835 and reopened from 1837-39)
1839 Christian missions revived Tamil education.
  (usually taught Tamil with English)
1876 Government decides not to support Chinese and Tamil
  education.
  (on grounds that English education was prefered)
1884-7 Tamil schools existed.
  They had no government aid and did not survive.
1916-24 1 Anglo-Tamil school was given aid.

 

1930-44
This period saw the establishment of Tamil education due to the
following reasons:
a)The Indian population was more settled.
b)The Roman Catholic Mission and Ramakrishna Mission
established and managed Tamil schools with relative
success.
c) The Singapore Indian Association took charge of education
for the Indians.
However, standards of Tamil education was still low due to an array
of reasons. This ranged from the lack of trained teachers to the general
indifference of the Indian population to Tamil education.

 

1928 Singapore Indian Association work with Ramakrisna Mission
  to assume responsibility for the Indian population.
1928-34 Government policy continued to denied grants to Chinese
  and Tamil education.
1935 Sir Shenton Thomas, the governor, restored government
  grants to schools regardless of medium of instruction.
1938 3 out of 11 Tamil Mission schools received government
  assistance.
1942-45 Japanese Occupation of Singapore
  Many Tamil schools closed down.
  Indian Independence League got involved in the administration
  of Tamil schools (used as propaganda tools for them).

 

1945-58

1945 Post-war
  British Military Administration reestablished schools.
  Children were encouraged to attend English-medium
  schools.
1946 Tamil associations, Missions and labour unions provided
  Tamil education.
  25 Tamil schools established.
1948 State of Emergency in Singapore and Malaya.
  Trade unions disbanded and many unionist fled or
  were arrested. Some had managed and taught at Tamil
  schools. This, coupled with poor finance, caused schools
  to close down.
1949 Tamil Education Society set up.
  It aimed to help the government to revive Tamil education.
1950 23 Tamil schools existed in Singapore.
  All 23 schools only taught at primary level.
1956 Establishment of Tamil teachers' training class at the
  Teachers' Training College.
1957 Department of Indian Studies with Tamil as main language
  was set up at the University of Malaya in Singapore.

 

1959-68

1959 Start of government Tamil schools.
  Schools fully aided.
1960 Establishment of first Tamil secondary schools.
1966 Memorandum on Tamil Education.
1967 Prof. Thani Nayagam at University of Malaya brought
  world attention to Tamil at the 1st International Conference
  on Tamil research.

 

1969-82
This period saw the decline and end of Tamil schools in Singapore.
Developments in the political, social and economic environment of
Singapore affected the demand for Tamil education adversely.
Bi-lingualism was emphasised after the separation from Malaysia
and English education was promoted as a means of securing one's
future employment prospects.

 

1965 Separation from Malaysia
  Policy of bi-lingualism and rapid industralization with English
  as the language of wider communication.
1975 Enrolment at primary one classes in Tamil-medium schools
  fell to nil.
  NUS Tamil Literary Society established.
1977 1st biennial seminar by NUS Tamil Literary Society -
  "Tamil Language and Literature in Singapore".
1981 Submission of report on the the re-establishment of
  Indian Studies at University.
1982-86 Annual Youth Seminars organised by Youth Wing of the
  Tamils Representative Council
1985 Last Tamil school, the Umar Pulavar Tamil High School
  closes down.

 

Summary
The failure of Tamil-medium schools to survive often revolved
around a series of similar problems. The lack of government support
and that of suitable textbooks, teachers and finances led to the low
prestige of Tamil education and that of a proper structure for Tamil
education beyond that of a primary level throughout the years.
Ultimately, the social, poltical and economic environment of
Singapore was not conducive to the growth of Tamil education.

 

 

 



[1] K. Palanisamy, A History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 1946-1982